Thursday, December 6, 2007

Purple people

The bus stops again. This time it is to let the passengers fill out their entry cards to Lebanon. Then, after coffee and fags are consumed as well, the bus zooms off up the road to the archway indicating Syrian border control. It is cold and bleak. We all pile off the bus, collect our stamps, and pile on board again. The bus zooms up to the Lebanese border control. Here we have to buy a visa. There's a friendly multilingual money exchanger eager to facilitate the transaction. When he smiles you can see the shark teeth. We get our visa stamped and join the Syrians on the bus and begin the slow descent to Beirut. The road twists and turns and diverts around a high bridge that has been neatly bombed by the Israelis during last year's war. There is heavy traffic in both directions. Fortunately our driver is fearless and shows no nerves as he overtakes a truck which is already overtaking another truck, as we approach a blind summit. Gayle reads, oblivious to it all.

Beirut finally comes into view as the road winds down a narrow ridge and we enter the city. We emerge from the bus and try to work out the route to a hotel whilst men invite us to board buses going goodness knows where. A soldier waving an automatic weapon around approaches us and gives us directions in perfect English. Unfortunately we have to cross a road. Now after Damascus our senses are attuned and reflexes primed for such an occurrence, but maybe we are not quite 'match fit'. There is a story that Beirut wishes to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix, but the joke is that they already have it daily on their roads. It is ruthless. We make it to the other side......just.

We are staying in an old neighbourhood by the docks that is full of old French colonial buildings, trendy bars and restaurants. To the west is the rebuilt city centre - stylish buildings with warm stone facades. The streets are empty though and the area around the parliament building is fenced off. Now and again we come across an army personnel carrier parked up on a crossroads. There are soldiers directing traffic at hectic intersections. In the west of the city there are more shops and a couple of universities. The buildings are more modern, usual concrete sprawl. Now and again we spot a survivor from the civil war, shot up and shell-damaged, hiding behind a brand new tower block of appartments. Along the seafront is the corniche - but it's a cloudy day and there are not many people around. We are both surprised by the signs of wealth - the Mercedes, BMWs and 4x4s, the designer clothes shops and expensive restaurants. One evening we go to the cinema and the lobby is full of people chatting away in French, English and Arabic - it feels very European.
We journey south to Sour/Tyre and Saida/Sidon - the two most important Phoenician cities. Sour was the main port from where the Phoenicians sailed. Their boats were made from the famous local cedar trees. Now there are some Roman remains, including a complete hippodrome. The city is close to the Israel border and has suffered in the past. Hezbollah flags fly around the city. There is also a large Palestinian refugee camp here and a big UN presence i.e. lots of shiny white 4x4s with the letters 'UN' on the sides. We stay at a pension in Saida that used to be a convent. When it rains heavily the water comes in through the windows and forms a pool under the beds. The shower is pretty feeble. No wonder the nuns cleared out. The convent is in the middle of the old town souk, built by the Ottomans. A local billionaire has been renovating the buildings in the souk and it's a great place to wander around. Gayle gets chatting to a man who explains that he is a Palestinian whose family moved here in 1948 from Haifa. The Palestinians moved in to the old houses whilst the local Muslims moved into the new town and the Christians went to Beirut. Katia who runs the pension is one of the few remaining Christians. We ask her about the wars, and she explains that people in Lebanon have different enemies depending on where they live. For her, it is the Syrians. She is critical of Hezbollah for provoking the Israeli attack last year. She also explains that before the civil war, nobody was labelled by their religion and now they are. This echoed something we were told in Bosnia.

In Phoenician times, back when the Pharoahs were having it out with the Hittites in Syria, Saida was the centre of the production of purple dye, after which they were named by the Greeks. The dye was extracted from seashells and used to produce purple cloth. The shells were harvested to extinction and all that remains is a small hill beside the old town made up of discarded broken shells. The real tourist highlight is the Soap Museum - explaining the original process of soapmaking from olive oil. The craft continues in some places - Aleppo in Syria is the most famous.

I'm typing this from an internet cafe in a barrel-vaulted room in the old souk - decorated all over in brown paper to look like a cave. Thankfully no-one is smoking......... The power cuts out once a day, as in most of Lebanon, but the cafe has a back-up generator on stand-by. It is still raining outside.............

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